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‘It’s the multiplicity of things that are Istanbul.’

Gems in this

Photo>>>Bradley Secker


Explore Playbook

Feature by Rosie Fea

True to its coordinates of east meets west, and north meets south, Istanbul stands as a grand medley for diverse ways of seeing. It’s only natural that Deniz Ova — with her multidisciplinary and adaptable approach to life — found herself moving there to lead the country’s most esteemed design biennial.

Growing up in Germany with Turkish parents, Deniz was exposed to frequent travel and the freedom to dabble in a myriad of expressive pursuits. These days she’s like a walking, talking creative repository. As the Executive Director of Istanbul’s cultural institution Salt, Deniz spends her days collaborating with artists, designers and thinkers who are dedicated to design education and its influence on future states. Calling Turkey home has afforded Deniz the chance to truly unravel and help advance the regional design scene, but not without a bit of “love-hate” thrown in, she admits. We chat with Deniz about pushing creative thought in volatile political climates, art accessibility in the digital era, and why the Turkish capital is ground zero for keeping one’s finger on the creative pulse with her Istanbul Travel Playbook. 


On where you’re from

I grew up in a little village close to Stuttgart, part of a very old medieval town called Esslingen, which has a very specific environment architecturally. But when I went to study in Stuttgart it was more older palaces and castles, partly destroyed and rebuilt, partly refurbished or replaced by other buildings. As a city, Stuttgart is still in construction — half new and half old, super beautiful, super small. Therefore, I think the city is still in constant change. It’s the city of engineering, with the headquarters of Mercedes Benz, Porsche and other engineering companies. So that has a certain impact on the city obviously — having that many progressive companies and people, and that much science and technology around you, and the possibility of the richness that it brings to the region. There’s a lot going on in that sense.

On the influences of Stuttgart

How I look into projects, perceive exhibitions, and how I like my teams to build exhibitions or the environment for the programs that we're doing, is very much inspired and influenced by what I’ve experienced in Germany. I wasn't aware when I was living there, actually, I only figured that out quite late when I moved to Turkey and started to work actively with architecture and design. Then I realized how much it had surrounded me and influenced my work and the view I have.

On your early interest in creativity

My interest was very much in theater and classical music growing up. I’d always done costumes for the theater in school, which I continued to do during university. I never studied in that sense, but I learned to work with my hands. We had a lot of practices and classes around crafts, so it gave a very wide view on what happens in the world practically. That notion around what you can do as a human to create and produce something that, once you finish, is something you can either experience or use, or just present to someone.

Although raised in Germany, Deniz grew up speaking Turkish as her mother tongue and longed to experience her family’s culture. Drawn to the booming creative scene in Istanbul, she relocated there over a decade ago and quickly established herself in the art scene, stepping into the role of Executive Director at cultural institution Salt (pictured rows two and three). Top image of Istanbul shot by Bradley Secker for Exceptional ALIEN; row two left courtesy of Salt; row two left and row three by Bradley Secker.

On finding your path

I actually studied linguistics and political science, so I had nothing to do with the arts whatsoever. My parents wanted me to do something proper! So I started to do these studies thinking that they could maybe be useful in the sense of how to read the world, how to understand it and figure out what I want to do. At the same time, I'd been working at the theater constantly as Assistant Director in the State Theater of Stuttgart and the regional theater and the city theater, and had been working towards a career in theater. While I was doing all these different things, I was trying to figure out what my talents actually were. I was not an artist, nor a creative in that sense, but I was really good at managing and putting things together. It took me a while to understand that there are these jobs in the art world, a completely different part — that somebody needs to manage it. So I learned a lot and have seen a lot of good productions, and that is something that really formed my view on artistic work.

On how travel influences your work

I think traveling is super important. That's why I do it extensively — to really experience things where they are and to experience different cultures; to really see different perspectives and to see or read things differently. Because you predominantly see things from a Eurocentric, or from a Western perspective. But it’s important to change this perspective, and to say there's also another view on things and another way to see it and accept it. It’s only then that we can talk about it and see what we can change or how we can put things in a different way and work together.

‘Traveling is super important. That's why I do it extensively — to really experience things where they are and to experience different cultures; to really see different perspectives.’

On early travel planting creative roots

My parents are not artists at all, but were always very much engaged in music — they were good listeners, good followers of classical music, and had a very poetic approach to life. They used to have a travel agency, so we traveled a lot. Very much in Turkey, in our youth, we traveled with the caravan to different places on the coastal side. We went to a lot of museums in Turkey in the 80s and 90s, to excavation sites — discovering excavating history, learning from those sites. And then later on when we started to take art history classes in the 10th grade, me and my sister started to go to museums around Europe. Our travel was then mostly programmed around the museums or the artworks we wanted to see, either going to London or going to Italy or France, being excited by the different architectural masterpieces in Europe. So that very much formed my roots.

On wanting to reconnect with Turkey

I grew up bilingual, with Turkish as my mother tongue, but it never felt like it because my daily life was always in German. So I wanted to experience what that meant, see if it would be a different feeling. I think in a way the more languages you speak, the more characters or personalities you can develop.

At Salt, Deniz helps to curate and produce research-based projects, exhibits, workshops and shows, centered around art, architecture, design and history. Deniz believes that institutions like Salt are responsible for helping people to understand their position in the world. Rows one, two and four of Salt and Deniz Ova photographed by Bradley Secker for Exceptional ALIEN; row three courtesy of Salt.

On moving to Istanbul

I moved to Istanbul in 2007 because the city was so exciting. The artwork and the art scene was booming and there were many, many exciting things happening. Then I started to do international projects touring with the Multi Arts Showcase Festival. So the job I moved to Istanbul for was actually one that involved traveling to different places! To go to other European cities and present arts and culture from Turkey, in collaboration with other partners in different cities.

On what you learnt from sharing art with the world

My first years were mostly looking into different artistic disciplines, creating the festival, and traveling with it to Nordic countries, Holland, Spain and other places. I did all this amazing travel, which was so inspiring. I met all these amazing institutions that were at other ends of the world, with different practices, doing amazing productions, and I thought, ‘We have so much to learn from each other’. Although we’re often so far away, and not using the same practice, we are all working towards the same aim from different angles and different perspectives. That was just so enriching and inspiring to have the possibility to be together. I learnt a lot from that exchange.

‘I met all these amazing institutions that were at other ends of the world, with different practices, and I thought: we have so much to learn from each other.’

On the Istanbul Design Biennial

The Istanbul Design Biennial was inaugurated in 2012. But after the first edition they were looking for someone new to run it internally, and they offered me the job. I was so lucky to start working as the Director. I had no idea what design and architecture was at that time. Besides being a consumer and a user of buildings, I wasn't really aware of what it was, so university started for me again. There were so many new aspects I had to learn, it was really enriching and amazing. I traveled a lot to other design festivals and exhibitions, presentations, and attended conferences, which was a major learning for me. You can read things up to a certain point but you have to experience them to have things change. I did that until January 2022, and since February 2022 I’ve been the Executive Director of Salt.

On designers being world–changers

The role of the designer is a crucial one, because they sit with a position that can create change. They’re agents of change. Not to put too much pressure, importance or responsibility on them, but there is something good to take out of this responsibility. If we look into design history, look at someone like Buckminster Fuller and how he saw his role as a designer. Everything is designed and that puts even more importance on reflecting and rethinking how we as creatives are involved. It's so important to understand that the things happening in the world are personal. You’re part of it. You’re not just a viewer or a person that reads the news — you're part of it. Then understand that, even if there's just a small chance, you could be changing something.

Deniz draws energy from the old and new of Istanbul, from traditional eateries such as Fıccın (pictured row two, courtesy of Fıccın), to the modern architecture of the Asian side of the city. When she is in need of inspiration, she turns to the meditative nature of the sea — one of her favorite walks is along the waterfront of Tarabya to Yeniköy. Top image by Bradley Secker, row three courtesy of Deniz Ova.

On the important role of institutions

The important thing in what we're presenting as institutions is very crucial in making people aware of what's going on in the world. It's not only about the artwork or the creation, it's really about the story they're telling and how they're looking into urgent issues. Our need is to understand what's going on from different perspectives, and that's why learning is a major aspect. Institutions still have an obligation, I think, to be an interface to that learning. You can read a newspaper or a book, you can look things up on YouTube or the internet — the digital world offers everything — but sometimes as a person, you are overwhelmed by all that information. You need to put everything in perspective. Exhibitions, or programs we offer in cultural institutions, can help people understand their position in the world, what they feel, and their own questions. If a person who is feeling troubled goes into a Volkan Aslan or İpek Düben exhibition, they might see that they're not alone. It helps reflect. So we can offer a platform to meet, talk, experience, and dive into new topics. Just widening the horizon to learn about the world. It's quite important for support, now and for the future, for all of us, and for all generations. 

‘Just to listen to and see the water really gives great relaxation. I usually walk from Tarabya to Yeniköy and stop in front of the Austrian Consulate.’

On places you frequent in Istanbul

Definitely going to the seaside for a walk. Just to listen to and see the water really gives great relaxation. It's my meditation. The city has these different stretches where you can walk on the waterfront. I usually walk from Tarabya to Yeniköy and stop in front of the Austrian Consulate. There are also a lot of old buildings around there too, so you have a different architectural experience. You have greenery, the water, the boats crossing constantly, and the fishermen — don't get the image that it is not crowded, it is crowded! But it's really inspiring and relaxing.

On showing a friend around for the day

I would start with a walk and breakfast on the shore. Café-wise I would definitely go for lunch at Fıccın, which is very traditional, and then go to see some classical stuff. The Hagia Sophia is such an amazing place to see. And also some of the mosques around the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar itself is very touristic, but it's such an experience to see the centuries-old architecture and different layers that show how the city lives. There are some hidden jewelry places in the Grand Bazaar with antique jewelry, and also this scarf designer who does not have a shop but sells them in different places. One place is called İç Bedesten [Inner Bedesten, the heart of the Grand Bazaar], where you have a lot of antique shops selling jewelry from different periods and cultures. It has things from different designers that do amazing ceramics and textiles, carpets, bags, and so on. So that's a place that needs to be visited.


To fully experience the many faces of the city, Deniz recommends visiting the classical Grand Bazaar (pictured rows one and two) and Hagia Sophia (pictured row three), where you can stroll through the layered history of Istanbul and its people. Continue this tour of tradition with a trip to the Kariye Camii (pictured row four), before admiring the more contemporary architecture in surrounding neighborhoods. Row one left courtesy of Linus Mimietz, row one right courtesy of Svetlana Gumerov; row two courtesy of Michael Parulava; row three left and right courtesy of Imad Alassiry, row three center courtesy of Abdullah Oguk; row four courtesy of Dana.

On getting a culture fix

Do a classical tour and go to Chora Church [Kariye Camii] but at the same time, I would say go to some of the contemporary art institutions that are also situated in different locations in amazing architectural buildings — that is an experience in itself. Definitely go to Salt, obviously! We're just installing an exhibition right now actually. It's a selection of moving image works from the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, and is about work produced after the 2000s, but mainly looking into the ‘unknown’ that was the period at the end of the Cold War in 1989 — what it meant for artistic production, how it changed, what kind of imagery was created. It’s also a reflection on that period and what it meant to live in the eastern part of Europe or the post-Soviet countries. It's very poetic and critical, and looks into the political situation, but also just daily life. 


On where to eat

One place to eat, Şahin Lokantası, is a place that is only open until late afternoon because they only serve the people working in that area. It's very traditional homemade food. In the evening, I would go to one or two different tavernas, or meyhane as we call them, to have meze. Ones like Asmalı Cavit and Koço Restaurant.


On something else not to miss

If you have time, try to go to the Asian side to experience the city from that perspective. It has a completely different feeling because it has modern architecture. The European side has the old Byzantine architecture, but there’s very little on the Asian side from that period. It’s iconic for modernist architecture and buildings from the beginning of the Republic in the 20s and 30s.

‘In the evening, I would go to one or two different tavernas or ‘meyhane’ as we call them, to have meze. Ones like: Asmalı Cavit and Koço Restaurant.’

On the feeling you get when flying into Istanbul

A warmth, and anxiety. Anxiety around missing out on things. There's so much going on, so it’s more an anxiety of being stuck in traffic and losing time.

On a window or an aisle seat

I prefer a window seat because I want to see where I'm approaching or, when I’m leaving a city, how it looks from the top. And I like to sleep on the plane, so then I can put my head somewhere.

On a song that best represents Istanbul to you

‘Human’ by The Killers.

On Istanbul in one word

The city has many faces, so I don't think that it has one word. It’s the multiplicity of things that are this city.


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